If your knees don’t knock and your pulse doesn’t pound as a buck slips into range, maybe it’s time you quit deer hunting.
As Aldo Leopold wrote: “The love of hunting is almost a physiological characteristic. I should not like to own the boy whose hair does not lift his hat when he sees his first deer. We are dealing, therefore, with something that lies pretty deep.”
“Buck fever” raises hats and races hearts without its victims moving a muscle or breaking a sweat. In fact, its telltale adrenaline surge is so instant and convulsive that a blood-pressure check at that moment would “bust the machine that takes it,” wrote Robert Ruark in “The Old Man and the Boy.”
Therefore, if you’re getting old, and/or out of shape, or smoke cigarettes, or suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure when buck fever attacks, a fast-approaching deer might be the last deer you see. And unless someone witnesses the encounter or shows up in time to hear your dying words, no one will know you died of buck fever.
Yes, most deer hunters who suffer heart attacks were struck while dragging a deer, hiking to a blind, climbing a tree, or “pushing the bush” during drives. Recent research, however, shows that buck fever can trigger dangerous heart rates and erratic rhythms in stationary hunters that differ little from those caused by hard exercise or physical labor.
Sitting and Dying A 2016 study by Steven Verba at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania found that climbing trees and dragging deer triggered very high heart rates for a minute or longer in many of the 19 hunters they studied after fitting them with small “patch monitors." Buck fever generated similar responses and erratic rhythms even though the hunters were immobile the entire time.
The study involved male and female hunters from ages 25 to 52, with and without cardiovascular diseases, ranging from trim to obese.
Fifteen of the 19 deer hunters experienced buck fever, including seven who recorded heart rates that reached or exceeded 85% of their age-predicted maximum for up to a minute. They also suffered irregular heart rhythms. In contrast, of the 13 hunters monitored while hiking, only three recorded heart rates at or above 85% of their age-predicted maximums.
Meanwhile, of the six hunters who climbed a tree, three recorded heart rates reaching or exceeding 85% of their predicted maximums for two to three minutes. Of the four who dragged a deer, one male hunter’s heart rate reached 91% of his predicted maximum, and a male diagnosed with cardiovascular disease recorded deficient blood supply to his heart.
Dr. Alan Lazzara practices and teaches emergency medicine at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, Michigan. He recalls treating a 60- to 70-year-old hunter who was rushed to the emergency room after suffering a heart attack when he spotted, aimed at, and shot a big deer. The man started feeling chest pains before reaching the deer. When a friend walked over to help him clean and drag it out, they realized the deer had to wait. He was having a heart attack and needed to get to a hospital.
What Triggers Buck Fever? Why do hunters suffer from buck fever, and do all hunters experience it equally? A University of Wisconsin-Madison study in 1996 by Rich Stedman and Tom Heberlein used heart monitors to measure how 10 hunters reacted when they saw, shot at, and sometimes bagged ducks, geese, deer, and upland birds.
The data revealed deer hunters suffered most from “buck fever.” Their heart rates jumped an average of 33 beats per minute higher after spotting and shooting a deer. In contrast, heart rates jumped 28 beats for goose hunters, 22 for duck hunters, and 10 for upland bird hunters.
“Stress, anxiety, and excitement vary by experience and the prey’s size,” Stedman told MeatEater. “I’m sure Cro-Magnon hunters got hit much harder by ‘buck fever’ when spotting a mammoth than when seeing a mouse, even though they ate both. In terms of experience, a bluegill might not jack up a muskie fisherman, but it’s sure exciting for most kids.”
Lazzara agreed, noting that a first-time elk hunter who grew up hunting deer back east is more prone to buck fever when spotting a bull elk in the Rockies than a spike buck back home in the Appalachians.
“It involves how much you care and what you’ve got invested, and how much you’ve ‘trained’ to control it,” Lazzara said. “That ‘fight or flight’ response increases with your investments of time, expense, preparation, expectations, and the animal’s size. You’ll also react far differently to a buck with a chandelier on its head than one with two pencils.”
Stedman thinks part of that care and investment also involves risk. “Performance anxiety is a huge part of it,” he said. “The pressures to perform are far greater with big game. In bygone eras, if your family or tribe needed to eat, a mistake could kill you and leave them starving. All that anxiety, all those expectations, and all those fears of failure stay with us today.”
Risks Can Worsen Whether your system can handle that adrenaline rush varies, but the risks increase with age, weight, and declining fitness. “Our systems are built to handle the instant physiological changes of buck fever,” Lazzara said. “That ‘fight or flight’ response is there for a good reason. It’s meant to help us survive threats and meet challenges. But age, smoking, heart disease, drug use, weight gain, and poor fitness can turn it into something deadly.”
Lazzara said the buck fever victim he treated in the emergency room had undiagnosed coronary artery disease, which blocked several arteries, leaving him vulnerable.
“Those ‘pipes’ start narrowing and narrowing, and suddenly your rate jumps from 80 to 130 beats per minute because of buck fever,” Lazzara said. “Your heart is suddenly working really hard, but those narrow arteries can’t deliver oxygen to tissues, and heart muscles start dying.
“He was lucky he made it to the hospital,” Lazzara continued. “Not all of us eat well, watch our weight, and work out regularly. Either way, we bring all of our medical problems to the wild. They don’t go way when we arrive in deer camp.”
Lazzara, in fact, bought a portable defibrillator for his group’s deer camp in southern Illinois, which includes two older hunters. “You can’t predict when a heart attack will happen, but I want to be ready if someone needs it,” he said. “How many of us hunt deer where an ambulance can arrive in 30 minutes? They’re easy to use, and you see them hanging in every gym. It doesn’t take much to get the heart back into its normal rhythms.”